There Is No Evil

In 1962 after the trial of Adolf Eichmann, Hannah Arendt coined the phrase ‘the banality of evil’ to describe those who commit horrific crimes against humanity by unquestioningly following orders.  In Iran, writer/director Mohammad Rasoulof ("Manuscripts Don't Burn"), who is banned from filmmaking and from leaving the country, reflects on the personal moral responsibility of those who are tasked with carrying out capital punishment in his home country in his 2020 Berlin Film Festival Golden Bear winning anthology film “There Is No Evil.”

Laura's Review: B+

Considering that Rasoulof recently served a year in prison for ‘spreading propaganda,’ his latest film is one brave piece of cinematic activism.  The filmmaker has a talent for creating a sense of dread in seemingly everyday circumstances, one which keeps the viewer guessing, every one of his four stories going in unexpected directions. 

And none shock more than the first, 'There Is No Evil,' in which we observe the quiet and patient Heshmat (Ehsan Mirhosseini) going about his day.  The first thing we see is two men loading what appears to be a body bag into a vehicle in a parking garage which Heshmat drives out of, but at his home, that big bag appears to be a ration of rice.  The man watches TV, helps some neighbor kids rescue a cat and picks up his wife Razieh (Shaghayegh Shourian), then daughter from school to run errands which include grocery shopping and cleaning his mother-in-law’s apartment.  Razieh’s constant nattering and complaining (he even dyes his wife’s hair for her) has us wondering when this man is going to snap only for us to learn he is far beyond that.  Rasoulof has delivered his first gut punch.

The following three stories all concern Iran’s compulsory two-year military service for all men over eighteen years of age.  Without an honorable discharge from the Army, Iranian men cannot get a passport, something Pouya (Kaveh Ahangar) dearly wants in 'She said, "You Can Do It"' in order to move with his girlfriend Tahmineh (Darya Moghbeli) to Austria.  But newly installed in a small barracks with three bunk beds, Pouya is desperately trying to get out of his assigned mission – to execute a prisoner.  The piece mostly takes place in that small room, each of its other five occupants taking various sides of the argument like “12 Angry Men” in miniature.  Pouya keeps calling Tamineh, then her brother, in hopes of last minute reassignment, but when his fate becomes inevitable, Pouya takes extraordinary measures.

In 'Birthday,' we watch another soldier, Javad (Mohammad Valizadegan), make a train journey, then hike through a lush forest, eventually coming upon a remote farm where Nana (Mahtab Servati) pulls him into a barn, clearly having missed him.  He’s there for her birthday celebration, but when he asks her father for Nana’s hand, the man pawns him off on her mother, odd in Iranian culture.  We learn that the celebration has been called off over a man Javad has never heard of but whom Nana describes as her brother’s best friend and her ‘teacher.’  Rasoulof milks the tension and the mystery here for so long, it begins to feel like a horror movie, and in its own way, it is.

In 'Kiss Me,' Darya (the director’s daughter, Baran Rasoulof) arrives in Tehran’s airport where she’s picked up by her Uncle Bahram (Mohammad Seddighimehr) and his wife Zaman (Jila Shahi).  Although Bahram is a doctor, they live remotely, caring for bees.  He’s evasive with Darya’s questions and we learn her father was against this trip.  Zaman seems unnerved.  Darya’s modern sensibilities have us wondering where she has arrived from and Rasoulof’s talent for misdirection had me thinking the worst, but in the end, this segment very much feels like the twenty year aftermath of the second in all but the central character’s name. 

“There Is No Evil” places us in four distinctly different settings, all beautifully captured by cinematographer Ashkan Ashkani, whose extensive use of car interiors in the first and last stories recall the films of Kiarostami.  Rasoulof pulls off the rare feat of creating an anthology film with no weak segments while making a powerful statement on personal responsibility.

Robin's Review: B-

“There Is No Evil” is one of the featured selections of The Department of Time and Space's virtual Festival of Films from Iran running 1/22-2/7/2021.  Click here for more information and tickets.